You Shall not Covet: Getting Caught Within the Web of Desire Part 2

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(Picture: Nathan the Prophet confronts King David’s theft of Bathsheba)

The covetous road often entangles numerous other prohibition in its web. Below is a famous medieval parable about the dangers of coveting, and how the covetous person may ultimately get much more than he originally bargained.

On Shabbat eve, he went and broke down a thin wall between them, thus transgressing “Remember and observe the Sabbath.” As if that weren’t enough, he then rapes the woman whom he lusted after, and in the process, he violated the proscriptions of “Do not covet,’ and “Do not commit adultery.”

Alas, his appetite for the forbidden knew no bounds. After having his way with his neighbor’s wife, he helps himself to the family jewels.  The woman cried out, “Is there no end to your base character?” To silence her, the sinful man murders her, thus violating the law, “You shall not murder.”

After breaking a medley of biblical precepts found in the Ten Commandments, the man’s parents castigated him. And in defiance, the sinful son struck his parents, thus violating the precept commanding him to “Honor your father and mother.”

When he was arrested, he was taken to court and he cleverly testifies falsely with the help of his friends, that he had taken only his own property (i.e., also known as “The O.J. Simpson Defense”). He claimed that everything he took, was really his. Until now, he could not reclaim his property. However, once the robbers had broken the wall and killed his wife,  the opportunity was ripe for him to collect his property. Such a person has also transgressed, “Do not testify falsely.”

And kept on denying the accusations, one after the other. In doing so, he also transgressed “Do not swear falsely.” But in the end, his evil was revealed and his offense publicized. His shame was so great that he gave himself up to corruption and denied the Living God, thus transgressing “I am the LORD your God.” Finally, he became addicted to idol worship and bowed down to and served idols, thus transgressing “Do not have any other Gods beside me” and “Do not bow down to them and do not serve them.” And all this was caused by coveting. We see, then, that he who is covetous is close to transgressing the entire Torah. [1]

And now you know the rest of the story . . .

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Notes:

[1] Orchot HaTsadikim, Chapter 14: The Gate of Jealousy.

You Shall not Covet: Is it Possible to Legislate a Feeling? Part 1.

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From Maimonides’ description, it is clear that the man who covets is someone who has an unhealthy soul and may not realize it. By being unconscious of this problem, his behavior embarks on a path of self-destruction and moral ruin. Based on this reading of Maimonides, it becomes clear the role of Nathan the Prophet played in confronting King David for his illicit affair with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11). From a purely Maimonidean perspective, Nathan acted as a physician of the soul for David by prescribing him a regimen for David’s complete moral and spiritual rehabilitation. It is always intriguing to see how Maimonides’ exposition of coveting compares with other famous Judaic thinkers of history. Some of these scholars also examined the psychological component in the negative imperative “You shall not covet.” Yet, it is strange Maimonides did not illustrate his point by mentioning this famous biblical story!

Abraham Ibn Ezra: Now I shall present a parable: Know that a peasant who is of sound mind, and who sees a princess who is beautiful, will not covet her in his heart, to lie with her, for he knows that it is impossible. Do not consider this peasant to be like a lunatic, who would desire wings to fly to heaven, even though it is impossible. Likewise, a person does not desire to lie with his mother, although she may be beautiful, for he has been accustomed since his youth to know that she is forbidden to him.

In the same way, an intelligent person must know that he will not find a beautiful woman or wealth because of his wisdom or knowledge, but only if God allows it to him… and therefore an intelligent person does not desire it or covet it. When he knows that God has forbidden his neighbor’s wife to him, then she is more elevated in his eyes than the princess in the eyes of the peasant. Therefore, he is satisfied with his portion and does not allow his heart to covet and desire something that is not his, for he knows that God does not wish to give it to him; he cannot take it by force or by his thoughts or schemes. He has faith in his Creator, that He will provide for him and do what is good in His eyes.”[1]

Philo of Alexandria: While Philo‘s explanation is similar to Maimonides, but he expands much further on the proscription’s psychological aspects:

This commandment aims to curtail desire, the fountain of all iniquity, which from it flows all the most serious offenses—whether of individuals or of states; whether important or trivial; whether they relate to one’s life and soul; or whether the coveting pertains just to external objects. Like fire consuming wood, desire expands, consuming, destroying everything that is in its path. Indeed, many other subordinate sins subsumed under this proscription. These laws exist in order to correct those persons who are receptive to improvement; these other laws also serve to chastise those stubborn people who dedicate their entire lives to the indulgence of passion.[2]

The law here aims to curtail desire, the fountain of all iniquity, which from it flows all the most serious offenses—whether of individuals or of states; whether important or trivial; whether they relate to one’s life and soul; or whether the coveting pertains just to external objects. Like fire consuming wood, desire expands, consuming, destroying everything that is in its path. Indeed, many other subordinate sins subsumed under this restriction. These laws exist in order to correct those persons who are receptive to improvement; these other laws also serve to chastise those stubborn people who dedicate their entire lives to the indulgence of passion.[3]



[1] Ibn Ezra on Exodus 20:17.

[2] The Decalogue 173-174.

[3] The Decalogue 173-174.

From Medieval Book Burning to Modern Internet Censorship

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 Information is the currency of democracy. —Thomas Jefferson

When I was a young sixteen-year-old, I remember becoming involved in the Chabad movement in Los Angelos, CA. I remember purchasing a translation of Judah Halevi’s classic theological work, “The Kuzari” that was translated by the early 20th-centuryOriental scholar Hartwig Hirschfeld. When an Orthodox rabbi looked over the book, he declared it, “heresy”, and ordered me to burn my newly purchased book. At the time, I protested and asked, “Could I merely pull out the Introduction and burn that section, but keep the book?” He said that would be fine.

For many years, I felt ashamed of my behavior. Several decades later I decided to use this personal anecdote as a teachable lesson. Often, I have long since pointed out to my students, burning ideas is a cowardly approach to dealing with personal insecurities about faith, as Freud observed long ago in his book, The Future of an Illusion. The only way to defeat ideas you don’t like is to come up with better and more convincing ideas and solutions.

The historian Norman Bentwich (1883-1971) wrote, “Philosophers tend to be viewed with suspicion by a large part of the community. Philosophers, by the very excellence of their thought, have in all races towered above the comprehension of the people, and have often aroused the suspicion of the religious teachers.” [1]

Bentwich makes a valid point. In the history of Judaism over the last 1900 years, Talmudists often viewed Jewish philosophers with a measure of mistrust, accusing them of harboring beliefs that were too dangerous for the masses. Throughout much of the yeshiva world, from the 18th century to the 21st century, no rabbinic student dared pick up the Guide to study—at least during the daytime, but you could see students huddled in their rooms, or sometimes even under a table reading the Guide clandestinely.

Maimonides’ philosophical ideas met considerable resistance in his day, and in the year 1233, not long after his death, Jewish leaders solicited the Dominican inquisitors and claimed Maimonides’ “heretical” teachings threatened to undermine all faiths. As one might expect, they burnt Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed at Montpellier, in southern France.

But a change of heart even amongst Maimonides’ greatest critics occurred once they realized they inadvertently made themselves vulnerable to future Dominican incursions. Within almost a decade, Pope Gregory IX led a campaign to burn other books held sacred by Jews, such as the Talmud. In the year 1242, the Catholic clergy collected twenty-four wagons of the Talmud, which they burnt in Rome. Thus, a dangerous precedent became established.

This condemnation was all the more ironic, considering how the Dominican theologians Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) each appropriated many ideas from Maimonides.[2] In the Summa, Aquinas quotes R. Moses twenty-four times, always reverently referring to him as, “Rabbi Moses.”  Aquinas, in particular, was an Italian Dominican priest and Doctor of the Church.

After Aquinas’ death, William of Ockham (1285-1321) and John Duns Scotus attempted to ban Thomas’ works as dangerous to the Church. Yet, the quest for a pure and acceptable theology did not end with William of Ockham’s condemnation of Aquinas, for in 1324, the Catholic Church later condemned some of Ockham’s works as containing heretical ideas,[3] thus proving that Bentwich’s point was correct, as mentioned above.

Back to the Present

You may ask: Is this relevant? It definitely is! The above historical discussion about censorship proved to be one of many indictments for the medieval Church and rabbis who engaged in that kind of intellectual internecine warfare against their faith’s freethinkers and other intrepid intellectual explorers. But nowadays, with the benefit of hindsight, it is all the atrocious for Facebook and Twitter to engage in blocking political content of ideas its leaders and engineers find “offensive.”

Today, James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas released a surprise but damning report on Thursday that shows Twitter employees admitting they censor people’s’ right-leaning accounts, including banning them from the network because they do not agree with their political views! Had this happened in Russia, Iran, or China, none of us would be surprised—but in the 21st century United States? This is truly an affront to our society!

One Twitter employee named Pranay Singh, admitted that the majority of their algorithms are geared in such a manner that they target people with certain political views. Their method is insidious, they “shadow ban” right-leaning accounts, which essentially bans them from the platform without letting them know that they have been banned while allowing left-leaning accounts to slip through without the same scrutiny.” And they unabashedly admit:

  • “Yeah you look for Trump, or America, and you have like five thousand keywords to describe a redneck,” Singh explained. “Then you look and parse all the messages, all the pictures, and then you look for stuff that matches that stuff.” “I would say majority of it are for Republicans,” he confirmed. [4]

Many friends of mine on Facebook often get in the Facebook jail for asserting political views that the Facebook leadership does not like or approve. Let us hope that a class action suit is initiated. This is a battle that anyone along the political spectrum ought to agree upon. The Left would not like it if the political right behaved this way. Ideas deserve to be heard and debated in the public forum.



[1] Norman Bentwich, Philo of Alexandria (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1910), p. 7.

[2] See Jeremiah M. Hackett (ed.), A Companion to Meister Eckhart: Brill’s Companions to the  Christian Tradition (Boston: Brill, 2013).

[3] Roger Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1999), p. 350.

[4] https://www.projectveritas.com/video/hidden-camera-twitter-engineers-to-ban-a-way-of-talking-through-shadow-banning/

 

 

Reflections on the Iranian Uprising in 2018: The Silence of Liberals and Feminists

 

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Most of us are aware that the Islamic leaders of Iran have blocked all forms of social media, yet images continue to flow across the Muslim Curtain of Iran. By far the boldest symbol of the people’s revolt are the images of Iranian women taking off their hijabs, staring silently and defiantly. These brave women risk getting tortured and beaten by Iran’s Phallicratic State—while Western feminism reveals the depth of their apathy and indifference to their sisters who are fighting for the same human rights they enjoy in the West.

Yet, the silence has been deafening.

Instead of promoting war against other nations, in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, the Iranian government must invest in its people. “Death to the Ayatollah! Death to Hezbollah—music to Israel’s ears.

The European Union has been dead silent; Canada has been silent. Most liberals in our county has been silent. Facebook and Twitter have no unfrozen the accounts shut down by the Mullahs. Their silence is complicity.

Most interestingly, the Obama cabinet—including Obama himself has been dead silent. Their silence reminds me of 2009, the time of the first Green Revolution that was spurred on because of obvious election fraud. I remember thinking that this development posed the first major international test for the newbie President elect. I wanted to see whether he was capable of rising to the defense of the oppressed marching in the streets of Tehran.

And the reaction was that of complete silence. Yes, we walked down that road before. A real statesman who believed in freedom and democracy would have done so much more—our ambassador to the U.N., said and did nothing. The rest of the world followed in goosestep. The Iranian Secret Police took lots of names, arrested, tortured, and murdered thousands of the dissidents, as President Obama attempted to rehabilitate Iran’s international image to the Western world.

On Jan. 16th, 1979, Jimmy Carter acted no differently, as he paved the way for the Ayatollah Khomeini to seize the reigns of power. One would be hard pressed to find another example of ineptitude of American foreign policy until the dynamic duo of Barak Obama and John Kerry in 2016. The Iranian mullahs made their intentions known, as our presidents—Democrat and Republican alike—adopted a supine position, or more precisely, the traditional Muslim position of submission.

The Italian journalist Oriana Falachi, in her autobiography met with the Ayatollah Khomeini, and she had her lovely nails polished in red just the other day as she prepared for the famous meeting. The aid to the Ayatollah warned her, if she did not remove the polish from her fingers, the Ayatollah would have her fingers chopped—yes, I said, “chopped” off for being so immodestly dressed. This was a dreadful experience she never forgot. Ayatollah Khomeini was known to have his thugs cut off women’s breasts in his country if they wore a low-cut blouse.

Within hardly a wink of an eye, Khomeini moved swiftly to impose sharia. In March 1979, the new government issued a decree mandating that women must wear the hijab whenever they ventured outside, on pain of arrest. This was not without a harsh reaction. On March 8 that year, over 100,000 women, took to the streets of Iran to protest against this — to no avail, of course. The hijab became the most visible symbol of the totalitarian sharia backwater that the Islamic Republic of Iran became.

Yet, in our great country, the politicians and outside lobbyists did their best to make the hijab a thing of beauty. Now, in 2016, I am proud that my President and his cabinet are doing their best to cheer and support the Iranian women. Nikey Haley’s speech in the United Nations,

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley praised Iranian protesters Tuesday, adding that the US is seeking emergency meetings with the Security Council in New York and the Human Rights Council in Geneva regarding Iran.

·         “The people of Iran are crying out for freedom,” Haley said. “All freedom-loving people must stand with their cause.”

 ·         “This is the precise picture of a long oppressed people rising up against their dictators. The international community has a role to play on this. The freedoms that are enshrined in the United Nations charter are under attack in Iran,” she said. “If the Iranian dictatorships history is any guide, we can expect more outrageous abuses in the days to come. The UN must speak out.”

Haley continued: “We must not be silent. The people are crying out for freedom. All freedom loving people must stand with their cause. The international community made the mistake of failing to do that in 2009. We must not make that mistake again.”

I am so proud of how Israelis are offering their moral support on the Internet.

I suspect that Obama is afraid to speak out on behalf of the people, because he went out of his way to praise the current Iranian regime when he concluded his nuclear-arms agreement with Iran, as the Iranians mused how spineless the United States had become.

Whether you like Trump or not, history will remember him well for standing up to the rogue state and for its oppressed people.

Trump and Jerusalem

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Don’t worry about Trump’s motives. His actions count

By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel 

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California — The theme of brotherhood is central to the entire Book of Genesis. On Shabbat we chant the words, “Hinei ma tov uma na’im, shevet achim gam yachad.” (“Look how good and pleasurable it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.”

Yet Genesis did not begin that way. The Cain and Abel story embodies the story of Western Civilization in a nutshell. “Am I supposed to be my brother’s keeper?” Cain’s defiant question does not merit a response from God because the answer is all too obvious.

Ironically, it is the worship of God that leads to the first fratricide. What was true then is no less true today as fanatics threaten Israel today—especially since Trump’s announcement to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Once a dying king said to his two sons: “Get on your horses and travel to Jerusalem. The one whose horse arrives last will inherit my kingdom.” So off they went. Due to their love for one another, the brothers stopped at the outskirts of Jerusalem; neither one wanted to win at the expense of the other. So what did they do? They rode together on one horse! This story ought to serve as an inspiration for today.

Unfortunately, the wisdom of the past fails to inspire us as it should.

Some of my congregants wondered whether Trump was “playing the Jewish and Evangelical card” for the 2020 election. When King Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jews to return to their homeland, did he act out of the sincerity of his heart? Or did he act out of political considerations? In any event, God called Cyrus, “My shepherd” for God utilized a weak human being to serve a divine resolve. In fact, biblical theology always shows how God utilizes weak mortals to serve His purpose—perhaps even someone like President Trump!

Who cares about motives?  It’s the actions that count!

The Catholic Church along with the Protestants have long taught their followers to say to the Jew, the Latin insult “Hep! Hep!” an acronym for the words, “Hierosolyma est perdita,” ‘”Jerusalem is lost.” Historically, the Vatican moved to improve relations with Jews in 1965; and, eventually, the Vatican formally recognized Israel in 1993. By 1998, the Vatican issued an apology for the Catholic failure to do more for the Jewish people during the Holocaust. But Jerusalem is another matter—since the days of the Early Church Fathers, the Catholic Church believed that the Jew is condemned to wander the world; bereft of their ancestral home, bereft of their ancient Temple, bereft of their city of Jerusalem. I think David Ben-Gurion said it best: “The Catholic Church has a 2,000 years old reckoning with the Jews. The Vatican doesn’t want Israel to rule. There is a dogma (replacement theology, ed.) which has existed for 1,800 years and we gave it the coup de grace by establishing the State of Israel.”

Islamic armies have often tried to change the narrative of peoples they have conquered. The history of Jerusalem as the spiritual epicenter of Jewish life; Israel has always honored all faiths to worship in the spirit of brotherhood in Jerusalem. The Muslim intolerance toward the Coptic Christians, the Zoroastrians, the Armenians, the native African faiths, Yazidis, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, and Confucians tells an altogether opposite story.

In the spirit of fellowship, there is no reason why the Arab quarter of East Jerusalem may not serve as a future capital for a peaceful Palestinian state—for peace is only possible if there is mutual respect for the Other.

Let us not forget that over a year ago, one of President Obama’s most unfortunate legacies was his decision to change American policy by supporting the United Nations Security Council resolution declaring Judaism’s holiest places in Jerusalem to be occupied territory and a “flagrant violation under international law.” He did so because of his personal animus of the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

This strident decision ignored the fact, as Allan Dershowitz observed, “Before June 4, 1967, Jews were forbidden from praying at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site. They were forbidden to attend classes at the Hebrew University at Mt. Scopus, which had been opened in 1925 and was supported by Albert Einstein. Jews could not seek medical care at the Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus, which had treated Jews and Arabs alike since 1918. Jews could not live in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, where their forbearers had built homes and synagogues for thousands of years.”

Thank God, President Trump has corrected the record.

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Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Beth Shalom Synagogue in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted via michael.samuel@sdjewishworld.com

A Tale of Two Perspectives

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4 days ago

It is one thing to hear people pray in a Mosque saying “Allahu akbar” in unison, for we all have our unique way of expressing prayer.

However, when you hear somebody on a jet that is flying 40,000 feet in the air screaming to the top of his lungs, “Allahu akbar!”, what is your reaction? What is your heart and mind telling you? If you’re like any normal human being, you are most likely experiencing a sense of terror; you fear that your life might be ending within the next couple of minutes or seconds, as your life flashes before you.  I can guarantee you the last thing you are worried about is whether feeling this way might get you  labeled as “Islamophobic” or a “racist” despite the fact that Islam has nothing to do with race.

Once again, another Muslim terrorist named Sayfullo Saipov, proudly screeched, “Allahu akbar!” after running down some twenty people, killing eight people. One outspoken Muslim imam named Omar Suleiman has successfully persuaded Google to bury anything that is remotely, “anti-Islam.” He complained on CNN how the media perceives “Allahu akbar!” serves what he called, “a nefarious agenda.” Once again, instead of identifying with the victims of the terror attack, Suleiman and his ilk seem as though are trying to get us to identify with the perpetrator.

George Orwell referred to this kind of logic as “doublespeak.”

Frankly, if I were a true Muslim, I would be outraged—but not by those who are complaining about Muslim violence and deviance. Instead I would redirect my rage toward my fellow Muslims who are through their fanaticism single-handedly destroying their religion. They are the ones who have created this problem in perception. It’s time the civilized world of Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, and responsible Muslims take a different approach and unequivocally condemn religious inspired violence.

It is disturbing that organizations such as CAIR and other Islamic affiliates seldom organize large 100,000-person rallies condemning the kind of violence that is perpetuated by its apostles of hate. Such gatherings now and then occur in Europe, but not in this country. Islamic apologists created a new word, “Islamophobia” as a means of suppressing any kind of criticism toward Islam as a religion. It may seem strange, we do not ever hear of someone being “Judeao-phobic” or “Christian-phobic” because being afraid of Judaism or Christianity doesn’t really make any sense. Being afraid of Islam (which is what Islamophobia suggests) has nothing to do with being afraid of Muslims. I think the Muslim propagandists should have come up with a better term. Criticizing any religion is not a crime in a country that champions free speech.

People often attribute the following remark to the atheist philosopher Christopher Hitchens, who allegedly said, “The word Islamophobia is a word created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons.” Actually, it was the brilliant physicist Richard Dawkins who made this remark. While I would not use the same caustic language Hawkins uses, I do agree the term “Islamophobia” is a contrived linguistic weapon to suppress honest dialogue about how people feel about Islam as a religion. Islamophobia means “the fear of Islam,” and not the fear of Muslims.

Christopher Hitchens described Islamophobia in the following terms:

  • “A phobic is a person suffering from irrational or uncontrollable dread. I don’t choose to regard my own apprehensiveness about Muslim violence as groundless or illusory” “Fundamentals,” Tablet Magazine 5/24/10
  • “This is why the fake term Islamophobia is so dangerous: It insinuates that any reservations about Islam must ipso facto be phobic. A phobia is an irrational fear or dislike. Islamic preaching very often manifests precisely this feature, which is why suspicion of it is by no means irrational.” “A Test of Tolerance,”[1] Slate 8/23/10

Think about it.

Criticism of religion should not equated with hatred; nor should people who criticize ANY religion be tarred and feathered, or shamed for expressing their concerns about militant behavior of certain Muslims who promote violence in the name of the Quran. Nor does criticizing Islam make one into a racist.

Whatever you wish to call it, it is a term designed to suppress criticism of Islam. Whether you are a rabbi, priest, a Zen Roshi, a Catholic priest or a Protestant minister, you have every right to criticize your religion of origin for the problems pertaining to it as a faith. In ancient times, the prophets pulled no punches on criticizing the Judaism of their times and the way it was practiced. Quite the opposite. Judaism benefited from the prophetic critique.

Islam can also benefit from an honest critique of its doctrines, its holy books, and the way people practice their faith. Islam is not the exception, but it can be a great example if its followers pursue this fearless path of moral integrity. Let us pray that responsible imams take this criticism not as a sign of hatred or intolerance, but as an invitation to examine and discuss a topic that demands an ethical response.

In my next column, I will discuss the overuse of “anti-Semitism” to add further balance to the topic I have raised about religious labels.

[1] http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/2010/08/a_test_of_tolerance.html

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Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader at Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted via michael.samuel@sdjewishworld.com

Novel ideas needed for Simchat Torah

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Simchat Torah is a relatively new holiday. Nowhere is it mentioned in the Talmud; nor is it mentioned in Maimonides or the Tur Shulchan Aruch. But it is explicitly mentioned in the Zohar,[1] a work that dates back to about 1270—although it is a holiday that probably began many centuries earlier when the Babylonian and Palestinian communities finished reading their Torah cycles. Undoubtedly, just as the conclusion of Talmudic tractate always served as a festive occasion—it is a certainty Jews rejoiced in deed whenever their communities finished reading the Torah.[2]

And now for my story . . .

One of my Modern Orthodox colleagues, who works as a day-school teacher  in New York, surprised many of us with a candid remark about his experience of Simchat Torah. He confessed that he struggled with the holiday more so than any of the other High Holidays of the year. He felt that its celebration felt “mailed in and tired.”

Interestingly enough, several other Orthodox friends chimed in and expressed similar thoughts. Some complained about the length of the service. Some people felt they preferred making their own “personal” Simchat Torah concluding a Talmudic tractate or section of the Mishnah. Others thought the synagogues lengthen the Hakafot beyond the realm of sensibility.

As I thought about this discussion, I realized that many people may feel simply overwhelmed with the plethora of holidays we celebrate this time of the year. In other words, people’s ambivalence may in fact reflect tiredness.

Here at Chula Vista’s Temple Beth Shalom, most of our growing congregation is made up of Spanish members who have re-embraced Judaism over the last several years. I often like to tell them about how marvelous their spiritual journey has been for them. Despite several centuries of efforts to forcibly convert the Spanish Jews to Christianity, the Church failed. The fact they are here among us is proof positive that the Jewish spark of their ancestral identities could not ever be destroyed. So it remained dormant—but on one unexpected day, something awoke from within them.

Reclaiming the “lost children” of Latin American countries can help revitalize any Jewish community that is willing to welcome them back. One of my favorite newly minted Spanish Jews went with his friend to a Chabad store on Fairfax Ave. The rabbi had no problem asking the Jewish woman to say a blessing over the lulav, but when her Spanish friend asked to say the blessing, the rabbi looked at this dark-skinned Spanish looking Jew in total disbelief. “Are YOU Jewish?” he asked. “Yes I am,” and he took the lulav and etrog and said the appropriate blessing—while the Rabbi looked astonished.

It is high time we welcome back our Spanish Jews. We are the “Jewish people” and not “The Jewish Club.” It is time to welcome back all the lost Jewish tribes. That is debt we owe to our ancestors. We can do no less.

At our shul on Simchat Torah night, you could see all the Spanish Jewish men and women lost in a state of ecstasy, as they danced with the Torah. Since we have trouble getting a Minyan on the second day of Yom Tov, I instituted that we finish the Torah on Simchat Torah night; everyone celebrated with clapping and dancing, as we danced throughout the synagogues with our Torah scrolls, and on the sidewalk facing the shul for the whole world to see.

This modern custom actually dates back to the time when Russian Jews lived under the yoke of Soviet tyranny. The Russian government allowed Jews to affirm their Jewish identity by letting them dance in the streets. Elie Wiesel once commented that he was deeply amazed by the joy these Jews exhibited whenever he visited Moscow when he joined them in their celebration of Simchat Torah.[3]

For obvious reasons, this was something all the Spanish Jews of TBS could easily relate to; and so too, they all danced.

Even on Shabbat, at the end of the Torah reading, we took out all the Torah scrolls so that everyone who could not make it to the Shul on Simchat Torah could dance on Shabbat Bereishit—the first new parsha of the year. I explained that Shabbat absorbs the holiness of all the other days of the week, and that the lesson of Simchat Torah reminds us that everyone needs to celebrate the study of the Torah not only once a year—but throughout the year as well.

As rabbis, we need to think more imaginatively of how we can make the holidays more meaningful; sometimes, thinking outside the box can go a long way in improving the spirit of this most remarkable holiday.

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[1]Zohar 1:33; Raya Mehemna  Vol. 3; Parshat Pinchas 256b; Tikunei Zohar 56a.

[2] Other rabbinic sources record the observance  of Simchat Torah in a number of communities.   The Machzor Vitri 185 (an important 11th Halakhic work) describes the observance in clear detail and it corresponds exactly to how we nowadays observe Simchat Torah. In one passage he describes how the Second Day of Shimini Atsereth was observed in the French communities. The name “Simchat Torah” came only later.

[3]Elie Wiesel, The Jews of Silence, ch. 5.

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Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista, California.  He may be contacted via michael.samuel@sdjewishworld.com

The Power of “The Between” — A Lesson for Rosh Hashanah

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Once a judge was interviewing a woman regarding her pending divorce, and asked, “What are the grounds for your divorce?” She replied, “About four acres and a nice little home in the middle of the property with a stream running by.” “No,” he said, “I mean what is the foundation of this case?” “It is made of concrete, brick and mortar,” she responded.

“I mean,” he continued, “What are your relations like?” “I have an aunt and uncle living here in town, and so do my husband’s parents.”
He said, “Do you have a real grudge?” “No,” she replied, “We have a two-car carport and have never really needed one.”

“Please,” he tried again, “is there any infidelity in your marriage?” “Yes, both my son and daughter have hi-fidelity stereo sets. We don’t necessarily like the music, but the answer to your questions is yes.”

“Ma’am, does your husband ever beat you up?” “Yes,” she responded, “about twice a week he gets up earlier than I do.” Finally, in frustration, the judge asked, “Lady, why do you want a divorce?” “Oh, I don’t want a divorce,” she replied. “I’ve never wanted a divorce. My husband does. He said he can’t communicate with me!”

One of the greatest gifts we give to one another is the gift of listening. Nothing hurts us more than the sense that the people we care about aren’t really listening to us when we wish to say something. We never outgrow the need to have our feelings known. This truth may help us understand why a sympathetic ear is such a powerful force in human relationships—and why the failure to be understood is so painful. Indeed, many relationships end because each partner fails to be emotionally present to the Other.

When a man whose marriage was in trouble sought his advice, the Sufi Master said, “You must learn to listen to your wife.” The man took this advice to heart and returned after a month to say he had learned to listen to every word his wife was saying. The Master with a smile, “Now go home and listen to every word she isn’t saying.”
·
LISTENING TO WHAT IS NOT BEING SAID
Listening seems to be such an important part of the Rosh Hashanah holiday. In our prayers, we try to listen to God and “the still small voice” in the solitude of our souls. I think the problems of much of our world could be partially solved if we took one step back to listen to what people who think or feel differently have to say.

A few days ago illustrates this point better than any university classroom, where diversity of opinion is often squashed.

AN UNEXPECTED EPIPHANY

Last Saturday, Washington D.C. featured a Trump rally, pegged by many as the “Mother of All Rallies. The Black Lives Matter supporters decided to counter with a rally against bigotry and police violence against young blacks. While each side was doing their best to ignore the Other, a black Trump supporter named Henry Davis had a sudden inspiration.

Spontaneously, he decided to invite the BLM activists to join him, but he quickly changed his mind. He made the following challenge:  “So you guys know that the ‘Mother of All Rallies’ was to end the political violence,” he told the BLM group. “It’s about freedom of speech. It’s about celebration.

“So what we’re going to do is something you’re not used to, and we’re going to give you two minutes of our platform to put your message out. Whether they disagree or agree with your message is irrelevant. It’s the fact that you have the right to have the message. “It’s your right to say what you believe,” Davis told the group. “And it’s their right [referring to the pro-Trump crowd] to let you know what they think about what you’re saying.”

Then he handed the microphone to Hawk Newsome, president of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York. Newsome told the crowd, “I am an American,” eliciting cheers and applause.  “And the beauty of America is that when you see something broke in your country, you can mobilize to fix it.

“So you ask why there’s a Black Lives Matter,” Newsome continued. “Because you can watch a black man die and be choked to death on television and nothing happens. We need to address that.” To be sure, the crowd wasn’t willing to accept all of Newsome’s speech. At times they booed him and yelled out “BS” and “All lives matter!”

But there were moments when the crowd accepted the black rights activist’s message. When Newsome said he was a Christian and was taught to “Love thy neighbor,” the crowd cheered. And the crowd responded with a mix of cheers and groans when Newsome proclaimed he was not “anti-cop.” “We are anti-bad cop,” he said. “We say if a cop is bad, he needs to get fired like a bad plumber, a bad lawyer, like a bad f…g politician!”

When Newsome said “All lives matter, right? But when a black life is lost, we get no justice,” some people called him a liar. Newsome’s speech did end with a message of unity: “If we really want America great, then we do it together.”

At that moment, everyone cheered.

In that special exchange, conservative Trumspters and BLM found common ground. After the speech, journalists wanted to know what the BLM leader had to say. Newsome said the moment the Trumpsters “restored my faith in some of those people,” by allowing let him speak. “I feel like we made progress. Two sides that never listen to each other actually made progress today,” he said. “If not on a grander level, but just person to person, I think we really made some substantial steps without either side yielding anything.”

All this takes us back to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Relationships often get frayed and unraveled because in relationships we fail to listen to each other.

The great 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber developed an entire ethical philosophy of Judaism known as the “I and Thou.” According to Buber the magic of interpersonal transformation occurs in the moment of what he calls “The Between” where each party turns toward the other and enters into an undivided relationship.

This is where true communication and community emerges from a relationship. Often in my years of doing marital counseling, one of the first rules of engagement is to have a struggling couple to really listen to one another.

True listening is a listening of soul. It involves making eye contact. If involves respecting the other person’s space; it involves a willingness to listen. Authentic listening requires that we not judge, or pre-judge. It is in those moments of actual authentic meeting, healing can often occur because nobody wants to feel as if they are a non-entity and unimportant. These are but a few of the challenges Rosh Hashanah encourages us to travel along the road less traveled, and boldly go where we have never gone before.

If our communities can learn to teach the respect of “The Between” as Buber advocated, then not only will our own personal lives, relationships, and friendships improve—but so will our communities and maybe our country.

This is every bit a spiritual challenge—one which will allow us to consciously feel as though God is speaking to us and through us as we focus on healing ourselves and our world.
The Chinese say, “The journey of a 1000 miles begins with the first step,” and today on Rosh Hashanah, you have already taken that first step. But we need to continue the next steps as we make our spiritual journey

Eclipses in Jewish Tradition

This past week, some of my congregants asked me: What does Jewish tradition have to say about solar eclipses?

Like many ancient peoples, the Jews did not develop a scientific understanding of eclipses until much later in its history. Before we examine what exactly Jewish tradition says about this topic, I would like to preface my remarks with some general observations drawn from human history. The human evolution regarding how eclipses occur forms the cultural backdrop that will help us better understand and appreciate the views that emerged in Jewish folklore and history.

Mythical Perspectives on Eclipses

When our prehistoric ancestors first began observing the sun, moon, stars and planets, they realized that all life on this world depends upon the orderly movement of these celestial bodies. Should one of these bodies get displaced, the ancients feared that the world might come to a sudden end. Without the aid of science to explain how and why eclipses occur, the ancients resorted to myth to explain the nature of these anomalies of nature. Some of these myths portray the Sun fighting with its lover, the Moon. Other myths depict the sun and moon making love under a cloak of darkness. One myth that has enduring value is that the belief that the concord and well-being of the Earth depends upon the Sun and the Moon. Although we live in a scientific world, still, nothing conveys the visceral power of this realization such as the power of myth. It is in the realm of myth all these celestial bodies become larger than life.

According to ancient Egyptian myth, the evil deity Set disguised himself as a black pig and leaped into the eye of his brother Horus, the sun deity and blinded his eye. But eventually, Horus regains his vision through the work of  Thout, the moon goddess, who regulates such disturbances as eclipses and is also the healer of eyes. In one of the ancient depictions, the emblem of the winged Sun resembles modern day pictures of the sun’s elongated corona. It is important to remember that myth and science have one thing in common: each approach attempts to understand the order and mysteries of the universe. Sometimes mythic expositions can be very imaginative and profound.

In Tahiti it was believed that eclipses occurred when the sun and moon were mating. Indian tribes such as the Tlingit Indians of the Pacific coast in northern Canada, and other North American Indian tribes had similar beliefs. A Germanic myth sees the love relationship going sour as the principle reason why eclipses occur, as one scholar explained:

  • The male Moon married the female Sun. But the cold Moon could not satisfy the passion of his fiery bride. He wanted to go to sleep instead. The Sun and Moon made a bet: whoever awoke first would rule the day. The Moon promptly fell asleep, but the Sun, still irritated, awoke at 2 a.m. and lit up the world. The day was hers; the Moon received the night. The Sun swore she would never spend the night with the Moon again, but she was soon sorry. And the Moon was irresistibly drawn to his bride. When the two come together, there is a solar eclipse, but only briefly. The Sun and Moon begin to reproach one another and fall to quarreling. Soon they go their separate ways, the Sun blood-red with anger.[1]

Eclipses in the Tanakh?

Although eclipses are not specifically mentioned in the Tanakh, but there are some passages that speak about celestial anomalies that include the darkening of the skies—either by clouds or eclipses, or some inexplicable phenomenon.[2] For example, the prophet Isaiah says, “I clothe the heavens in mourning, and make sackcloth their vesture” and this verse could be alluding to a solar or lunar eclipse.[3] The medieval exegete Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) thought that the verse, “I go about in sunless gloom, I rise in the assembly and cry for help” (Job 30:28) might also refer to solar eclipse since the verb  קָדַר (ḏǎr) means to grow dark, or the darkening of the sun and moon.[4]

Perhaps the most important passage that bears wisdom on our discussion is from Jeremiah 10:2.

Thus says the LORD:

Learn not the customs of the nations,

and have no fear of the signs of the heavens,

though the nations fear them.

Throughout the ancient Mesopotamian world, people worshiped the celestial gods (sun god, moon god and Venus particularly; in Babylonia, Shamash, Sin and Ishtar respectively) were primary in most ancient religions. Their followers looked for astrological signs and omens how to live their lives. Human beings were believed to be at the mercy of these cosmic deities, and that is why Jeremiah warns the Israelites to abandon these foolish beliefs. Jeremiah’s warning is no less relevant today. In the next section, we will give some examples of how some rabbinic teachers rejected Jeremiah’s wise teaching.

Early Rabbinic Discussions

Similar to other ancient traditions in the world, Talmudic texts assert that an eclipse of the sun is an evil omen for the peoples of the world. However, a lunar eclipse is a particular fatality for Israel, the reason being is since Jews reckon their calendar by the phases of the moon.[5] Rabbi Meir in the Talmud offers an analogy, “A parable: This can be compared to a human monarch who prepared a feast for his subjects, and placed a lantern before them. When he grew angry with them, he told his servant, “Take away their lantern away, and let them sit in darkness!”[6]

And the Talmud goes on to elaborate about the root causes of eclipses.

  • If, during an eclipse, the visage of the sun is red like blood, it is an omen that sword, i.e., war, is coming to the world. If the sun is black like sackcloth  made of dark goat hair, it is an omen that arrows of hunger are coming to the world, because hunger darkens people’s faces. When it is similar both to this, to blood, and to that, to sackcloth, it is a sign that both sword and arrows of hunger are coming to the world. If it was eclipsed upon its entry, soon after rising, it is an omen that calamity is tarrying to come. If the sun is eclipsed upon its departure at the end of the day, it is an omen that calamity is hastening to come. And some say the matters are reversed: An eclipse in the early morning is an omen that calamity is hastening, while an eclipse in the late afternoon is an omen that calamity is tarrying.[7]

I can sense what some of you are probably thinking—modern Jews don’t think or believe this way! Let us borrow a page from Maimonides’ play book. We are not obligated to justify every remark found in the Talmud if it violates common sense, science, and reason. This is not meant as a blasphemous criticism of the rabbis, it is merely a statement of fact. All of us today living benefit from the evolution of our society. We are no longer living as Carl Sagan once described, “a demon-haunted world.” Socrates once said, “We are all midgets standing upon the shoulders of giants” and as a result, we are able to see further than our forbearers did.

The Talmudic discussion about eclipses continue:

  • The Sages taught that on account of four matters the sun is eclipsed: On account of a president of the court who dies and is not eulogized appropriately, and the eclipse is a type of eulogy by Heaven; on account of a betrothed young woman who screamed in the city that she was being raped and there was no one to rescue her; on account of homosexuality; and on account of two brothers whose blood was spilled as one. And on account of four matters the heavenly lights are eclipsed: On account of forgers of a fraudulent document [pelaster] that is intended to discredit others; on account of testifiers of false testimony; on account of raisers of small domesticated animals in the Land of Israel in a settled area; and on account of choppers of good, fruit-producing trees.

To Rashi’s credit, he admitted, לא שמעתי טעם בדבר —“I do not have an explanation for this …,” and I would venture to say Maimonides and the other rationalist medieval thinkers of his age probably felt the same. But the same cannot be said about the Kabbalists, for their mystical writings often gives credence to superstition. This was one of the principle reasons Maimonides warred with the Kabbalists regarding their use of magic and other superstitious practices. Hassidic homes still feature amulets designed to chase away the evil eye.

While most ancient rabbis were unfamiliar with Greek science and astronomy, there were some notable exceptions. The Talmud records, “Rabban Gamaliel had a tube through which he could see at a distance of two thousand cubits across the land and a corresponding distance across the sea” Steinsaltz explains that Rabban Gamaliel utilized a device known as the astrolabe, which was first invented by the Greek astronomer Apollonius of Perga between 220 and 150 B.C.E. This device made it possible to make astronomical measurements regarding the altitudes and movements of the stars; it was especially used in navigation for calculating latitude before the sextant was developed. We must not think all rabbis were primitive, but they were, after all, men of their age.

Concluding Thoughts

Personally speaking, I think the mythic accounts depicting the eclipse as a dangerous phenomenon of nature were more correct than moderns might be willing to admit. That being said, the Talmud and other mythic accounts overlook the most obvious reason why the ancients feared solar eclipses: blindness! As we read in the news the other day, hundreds of thousands of people across the world might go blind or have their vision permanently impaired as a result of gazing at the solar eclipse. There can be no doubt this was certainly no less true in primal times and this simple fact is probably why the ancients viewed the solar eclipses with trepidation and fear.

Among Halakhic scholars, there is no reference for anyone having to say a blessing be recited over the eclipse, especially when considering the potential danger it poses to our vision. This, in my opinion, seems sensible and logical. However, as one modern Halakhic scholar observed, “R. Lau noted that his own religious response to witnessing the eclipse had been to say Psalm 19, “The Heavens tell of God’s glory,” and Psalm 104, “My soul will bless God.”

[1] Mark Littmann, Fred Espenak, and Ken Willcox, Totality: Eclipses of the Sun (New York: Oxford UP, 2008), pp. 43-44.

[2] Isa 5:30; 13:10; 24:23; Ezek. 32:7–8; Joel 2:15; 2:30-32; 3:15; Amos 8:9; Zeph. 1:15

[3] Ibn Ezra thought it might be referring to angels.

[4] Cf. Job 6:16; 30:28; Jer. 4:28; Joel 2:10; 4:15; Mic 3:6.

[5] Mekhilta Bo, 1.; BT Sukkah 29a.

[6] BT Sukkah 29a.

[7] BT Sukkah with Steinsaltz’s Commentary Sukkah 29a.

[8] See Jeremy Brown’s fine article, The Great American Eclipse of 2017: Halachic and Philosophical Aspects, in http://www.hakirah.org/vol23brown.pdf.  See also Rabbi Tendler in Moreshet Moshe v. 2 p. 51 quotes Rav Moshe Feinstein as explaining that “there’s no bracha for seeing a solar or lunar eclipse and in fact it is a negative sign” And the Responsa Aseh Lecha Rav 150 agrees that a beracha should not be recited because no such beracha is mentioned in the Gemara.

Special Dispensation: Ivanka: A fitting successor to Queen Esther?

 

Donald Trump Is Sworn In As 45th President Of The United States

By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California — Someone in my synagogue asked me an interesting question about Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner: What kind of Halakhic dispensation was given to them to drive on the Sabbath to the Inauguration of the President? The same question came up recently when the Trump entourage traveled on the Sabbath to meet with the Arab leaders from forty countries in Saudi Arabia.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the rabbi who presided over Ivanka’s Orthodox conversion, sheepishly said, “Not me!” Who might the rabbi have been? Obviously, this is not the kind of publicity most Orthodox rabbis of any genre would want. One theory was that the special dispensation (known as a heter in rabbinic nomenclature) was due to the “safety concerns.”
Think for a minute.

Washington D.C. doesn’t have the best reputation for being a safe city, in fact it is considered one of the more dangerous cities to live in. Would safety be an issue? Possibly, but with all the presidential bodyguards looking over the family, it might not have been that serious of a problem.

There is a funny story attributed to Bill Clinton.
·         A former White House chief of staff Jack Lew, who was known for strictly observing the Sabbath, refused to work or to pick up any phone calls from Friday to Saturday sundown. That is, until Bill Clinton couldn’t reach him — and the then-president reportedly said into the speakerphone: “I know it is the Sabbath, but this is urgent. God would understand.” Lew consulted his rabbi, and it was decided that if the phone calls were emergency, he would not be breaking Shabbat by picking up the phone.[1]
Since the days of the Bible and throughout much of Jewish history, there have always been prominent court Jews in the political arena who have often played a significant role in shaping or influencing public policy.

The images of the lovely Ivanka Trump observing Jewish customs and traditions may remind us of how Queen Esther was depicted in rabbinic folklore and tradition. In some of the early midrashic texts, Esther is an exemplar of Judaism.

For example, Esther is depicted as observing the Sabbath, along with the other holidays. In fact, she is also described as eating challah and avoiding non-Jewish wine. She even observed the laws of Nidah, so that she would not have sexual relations during certain days of the month (Targum Rishon)

You’re probably wondering, why did the Rabbis add these fanciful comments? What purpose did these folktales about Esther serve? The answer I wish to give may upset some of my Orthodox and Hasidic friends, but Aristotle once was purported to have said, “Plato is my friend, but truth is a better friend.”[2]

The Book of Esther on some level embarrassed the Sages because the Book of Esther says very little about her religious orientation; her Jewish identity was to her more like an ethnic identity. It is highly doubtful she observed much of anything living in the palace of Xerxes (Ahashuerus) and when push came to shove, she opted not to get involved in the rescue of her endangered people. Mordechai scolded his niece, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:12-16)

Yet, her piety and willing to sacrifice herself for her people ultimately made her into the heroine we all know and love. Yet, despite the happy ending, the Sages debated whether this book should even be included in the biblical canon because God’s Name is absent throughout the text. With all of Esther’s faults, the Sages gave her a special pass in many ways–a point that the Talmud itself admitted [3].

In a way we should all be proud that Ivanka is teaching people about the joys of being Jewish and traditional. To be honest, whenever I hear questions about Ivanka and her Orthodox husband Jered “driving on the Sabbath” to the inauguration of her father, I find it amazing how critical people are of her. I suspect one reason people don’t like her is because of the national schism that has pitted the Republicans and the Democrats. In the eyes of many liberals, there is nothing—I mean, “NOTHING” that President Trump can do since liberals see the President in the most uncharitable terms.

The same nastiness has been directed toward his lovely wife, Melania and the President’s immediate family. Liberal-minded Jews in general often get nervous whenever they see fairly traditional observant Jews involved in the political arena. However, I have heard many friends express similar comments about liberal Jews who love to bluster their opinions—regardless whether some non-Jewish folks might find their attitudes obnoxious or insulting to their traditional American Christian beliefs.

After watching the meeting that took place between the President and the Arab leaders, I must admit I felt very proud of how the President conducted himself; I believe Jared Kushner played a significant role in trying to promote better American and Sunni-Arab & Israeli relations—and that is something we have not seen at all in the last two decades. Such behavior is important–even on the Sabbath!

In the final analysis, maybe the time has come for us to try to promote bridges that foster and facilitate understanding.

Is Ivanka Trump an echo of Queen Esther?

Maybe with a little bit of encouragement from her fellow Jews.

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[1] http://forward.com/schmooze/360453/ivanka-trump-and-jared-kushner-get-rabbinic-pass-to-ride-in-car-on-inaugura/
[2] This aphorism is actually a paraphrase of the Nicomachean Ethics 1096a11-15.
[3] BT Sanhedrin 74b.

*
Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted via michael.samuel@sdjewishworld.com



[1] http://forward.com/schmooze/360453/ivanka-trump-and-jared-kushner-get-rabbinic-pass-to-ride-in-car-on-inaugura/

[2] This aphorism is actually a paraphrase of the Nicomachean Ethics 1096a11-15.

[3] BT Sanhedrin 74b.